Crisfield, Maryland - It was no beach day, but we were determined to make it one.
Rain misted down and clouds hung heavily above us as my husband and I plopped into our orange kayaks, the only bright colours in a landscape of muted grays and greens. A great blue heron seemed surprised to see us when we cruised into the marsh, flapping away in a whoosh of slate-blue wings.
Our paddles sliced rhythmically through the water, past meadows of tawny grass and thick stands of loblolly pines. An hour or so later, a sliver of sand materialised from the fog. We'd made it.
Each summer at Ocean City, Maryland, our family vacation began with staking out a square of sand amid a sea of umbrellas and glistening bodies. An assault on the senses ensued: Kids shrieking in the surf; the lifeguard's shrill whistle; music booming from portable radios; that unmistakable smell of sunscreen. I didn't mind - and still don't - sharing a strand with the masses. But when I read that Janes Island State Park on Maryland's Chesapeake Bay has more than six miles of secluded beach accessible only by boat, I had to go.
Brian and I booked a campsite at the park in late April to avoid mosquito season, which is legendary at Janes Island. (Being a bug magnet, I didn't want to spend my weekend itching.) I'd chosen well. Our site, on the edge of a canal, had an expansive view of the park and its 3 125 acres of marshlands, forests and beaches.
We stayed miraculously dry in our tent during a night of thunderstorms and steady rain, awakening to a symphony of birdsong, including the throaty warble of the red-winged blackbird. I'd forgotten the French press and had resigned myself to a day without coffee when our friendly neighbour in the RV somehow read my mind and gave me a cup.
Fleeces and rain jackets donned against the chill, we headed for the park ranger's office - our rented kayaks, paddles and life jackets were already waiting for us at the boat ramp. Volunteer coordinator John Somers invited us in and showed us a wall map of the park's six colour-coded water trails, all but one of which are protected from wind and currents. The 30-mile network, on the American Canoe Association's list of the country's recommended water trails, brings tourists of many nationalities to this pocket of the bay. “It's like the UN in the summer,” he said.
Somers looked up the day's tide report and suggested the yellow trail - a straight shot to the centrally located Flat Cap Beach - and a return on the novice-to-intermediate red trail, which wends through narrow creeks in the park's northeast. (Taking the blue trail around low tide, he joked, might require portaging our kayaks through mud flats.) Somers also informed us of the one-minute rule - if you don't see one of the aluminum trail markers after a minute or so, turn back, or you could get lost.
In the adjacent Ranger Julie Schweikert Nature Centre, we visited the park's resident snapping turtle (“she's surly,” Somers said) and two lively western diamondback terrapins swimming in an aquarium - both species we could see out in the marsh, as well as muskrats, fiddler and blue crabs, river otters and brown pelicans. The park is also home to the northeastern beach tiger beetle, a state-listed endangered insect found only in a few isolated spots of the bay - including the beaches of Janes Island.
A little more than a mile of paddling later, our kayaks found Flat Cap Beach. I stepped onto the windy shore, littered with weathered driftwood, and wondered if Capt. John Smith had laid eyes on such a wildly beautiful scene on his travels through the Chesapeake Bay in 1608. According to Somers, Smith probably passed Janes Island as he travelled north to the Nanticoke River. Smith recorded in his diary that he took a bath in a hot spring, which may have been on the southwestern end of the island. At that time, the Annemessex and Pocomoke Indian tribes probably lived here, fishing for clams, oysters and crabs.
Cold be darned, I immediately waded into Tangier Sound, then thought better of it when I noticed small, pale-orange jellyfish moving about my ankles. We squatted to watch some of the animals trapped in tide pools, fierce little knots of life pulsing in place until the water returned. A recently expired horseshoe crab lay in the sand, its helmetlike shell pocked with goose barnacles and teensy oysters.
A bit farther down the beach, two big, grayish birds of prey perched on gnarled tree limbs, keeping watch over their domain. The park's seasonal naturalist, Sally Shoemaker, later confirmed that they were northern harriers, a species I'd never seen before.
Beachcombing along the shore, we noticed dozens of common periwinkles, a species of snail, stuck to the sturdy grasses like fleas on a dog's back. I peeked under pieces of wood, clumps of seaweed and other detritus with the remote hope of seeing a tiger beetle, but no luck - the inch-long predators wouldn't emerge until June.
Resting on the sand, we ate our PBJs, watching the waves and soaking in the solitude of a beach all our own.
Alas, a four-mile paddle awaited. Back in our kayaks, we wove through the channels of the red trail, the water shallow enough to see mussels and oysters clustered on the bottom. I threw some side-eye as we passed a pair of common terns, a species that bombed me once in Ocean City. An osprey, a fish-eating bird, flew overhead dangling its large black talons.
Leaving the sanctuary of the marsh for the Big Annemessex River, the rain picked up and the kayaks bounced through the choppy waters. Shoulders aching, we eventually rounded the corner back to Daugherty Canal, passing one of the park's three backcountry camping sites, an adventure for a warmer time. We glided right past our campsite - hello, tent! - and returned to civilisation.
Hauling our boats ashore, it hit me that I didn't have a single mosquito bite or patch of sunburn. Even more impressive, we hadn't seen a soul our entire trip, save for a lone kayaker in the distance that morning.
It had been the perfect beach day after all.
* Dell'Amore is an editor, writer and proud Maryland native.
If you go...
Where to stay
Janes Island State Park
26280 Alfred J. Lawson Dr., Crisfield
The park's waterfront real estate can't be beat, with more than 100 campsites and five camper cabins ($55.49/R800 a night) available March through November. Campsites with electric hookups are $27.49 a night; non-electric ones are $21.49 a night. Four full-service cabins serve guests year-round at $86.75 a night. To book one of the three backcountry campsites, contact the park office by phone. Paddle canoe and kayak trails to sandy beaches, try your hand at crabbing and fishing (licenses may be required), and watch for waterfowl atop a 24-foot observation tower. Boats can be rented from Crisfield Kayak & Canoe Rental by calling 410-968-0333.
Where to eat
901 W. Main St., Crisfield
Local and seasonal food by trained culinary artists. Its wide menu of homemade desserts is a sugar-lover's dream. Entrees start at $16.95.
Chesapeake Crab House & Tiki Bar
923 Spruce St., Crisfield
Overlooking a marina, you can't help but choose seafood, such as their Chesapeake seafood combo, with crab cakes, shrimp, scallops and flounder. Entrees start at $10.99.
What to do
A daily passenger ferry leaves Crisfield for Smith Island, one of two inhabited islands in the Chesapeake Bay. This is an ideal place to unplug, bike leisurely through the villages, chat with locals and eat Maryland's state dessert, the multilayer Smith Island cake. Ferry schedules and prices can vary, but a round trip in late April costs $40.